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Some people weekend at the Hamptons. Ronan and Colin Hannan weekend in Belize!
Anyone who has worked in the travel industry has at one time or another toyed with the idea of opening their own little garden of eden on the other side of the world. In 2007, the Hannan brothers decided to do just that with the opening of Ka’ana Belize, a boutique hotel in Western Belize.
Nestled in lush natural landscapes, the resort is a short distance from top attractions such as the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. The hotel is home to 15 boutique-styled rooms and 2 villas, all graced with woodwork crafted by local tradesmen from the area. Recently Ka’ana Belize was honored with one of Condé Nast's 2011 Awards for Excellence! Over cocktails I had the chance to sit down with Colin Hannan to find out more about this amazing business adventure.
You mentioned that you and your brother traveled the world for a year, looking for the perfect spot to open your first hotel. What made you choose Belize?
First we wanted something relatively undiscovered…a hidden gem. Our agenda was to find a place with no Hilton, no Marriot! Second we really wanted a destination that could offer a lot of experiences; new, cool, unique experiences that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Belize has such a heritage and history that you find stories everywhere you turn. Mix that with a stunning rainforest environment (caves, ruins, rivers, waterfalls) and it held everything we needed to create a great vacation experience - Adventure outings by day which are complimented by the expected luxuries at night. The third thing we wanted, and the clincher really, was ease of access.
Belize is a four hour flight from NY. It’s as close as Houston, yet a world apart. And being English-speaking makes it easy and safe for our guests to feel comfortable while exploring the area.
What is a definite "must-see" experience for guests coming to Belize and spending a few nights at the resort?
We LOVE the ATM Caves! We were never into the idea of caves, but this is a mixture of adventure, nature, history and archeology all in one. After a short drive from Ka’ana, you wade across 3 rivers, swim into the mouth of the cave and, lead by your expert private guide, climb through to different “cathedrals” inside the caves. These can have ceilings 300’ tall and feature altars where the Mayan priests made sacrifices to their underworld gods when times got tough. You see perfectly preserved skeletal remains, in the same cave that those priests climbed into 1500 years earlier by fire torch to perform these offering ceremonies…..that’s a “must-see” Ka’ana-style!
This cocktail you served tonight is fantastic! What is it?
Thank you! It’s Chipotle vodka with muddled mango and cilantro. We offer a very similar version at Ka’ana, as we love infusing our liquors with local ingredients. I made it with fresh squeezed limes (takes an age but worth it!) as the base, the mango gives a sweet fruitiness and fights with the more aggressive chipotle, which gives it all a kick! I did however cheat by using Hangar One Chipotle Vodka, whereas our Head Bartender, Polo, refuses to buy anything infused that he can make himself.
Wow...it really makes me want to try other dishes typical of Belize. What is a typical meal a guest can expect if they dine at the resort's restaurant, La Ceiba?
There’s no specific Belizean cuisine. It’s grown from influences as wide as it’s people…African, Mexican, Caribbean, Guatemalan, English…
My favorites at the moment:
Red Snapper on a Cedar Plank: A simple but beautiful dish, we take fresh red snapper caught on the healthiest reef in the world (using sustainable fishing methods!), grill it on a plank of local cedar, which gives it a lightly smoked flavor and add a beure blanc and diced pickled onion from our garden. Other accompanying vegetables (all from our garden) include Chayote squash or Cho Cho as it’s called in Belize. It’s a healthy, fresh, tasty entrée that you’ll feel great after…and it has a real local and unique feel.
You mentioned that there is a strong fashion aesthetic that runs throughout the hotel, from the staff's uniforms to the spa amenities to the furnishings in each guest room. Can you give us some more details on this?
Well, we spend a lot of time in NY so it's hard not to have a fashion influence! My girlfriend, Cara Araneta, has lived here working as a fashion designer for the last 10 years, and she's been a great help for us when it has come to intricate design details. She just designed our uniforms, and we really focused on continuing our design ethos...take local materials and craftspeople and add some international design flair. So she worked with a local seamstress and bought all materials locally, but styled it up to give it a luxury expedition feel. As for furnishings, when we built Ka'ana we worked with 3 local carpentry workshops and custom designed every piece of furniture in the place from local hardwoods.
For the spa, we found an amazing local lady who uses different plants from the rainforest to create unique hand-made oils and scents, and they feel and smell amazing. They were such a hit in the spa that we had a graphic designer friend work create great packaging so that we can also offer them in rooms and our gift shop, and that way we can also help out a local business.
What are you guys working on now?
We're always adding to Ka'ana, but a major focus right now is our upcoming beach hotel in Placencia in Belize, opening early 2014. It will be natural progression from Ka'ana and the two will work wonderfully well together. We have a huge amount of ideas, and the site itself is insane, so we're very excited about it. I can't say much, but we'll be bringing an experiential edge to the beach and are focused on creating something extremely different.
I noticed that now Belize is appearing on several "Top Destinations for 2012" lists...such as CNN Travel. (Especially with the Mayan calendar marking the beginning of a new era or as some say....the end of the world on Dec 21, 2012.) What's your advice for travelers planning a trip to Belize this year?
Yes, it's great to see as Belize was somewhat unheard of a couple of years back. I think travelers are more and more interested in experiencing something more interesting on their vacations, so my number one piece of advice would be to switch in up and visit a couple of different areas in Belize. The beach and reef are stunning, but you'd be missing out if you didn't travel inland and experience the ancient culture and amazing adventures. Regarding timing, Belize is pretty good to visit all year around. I really like the summertime there (June-August), as the weather's amazing but it's not considered high season and you can get great value for money.